Hyperrhiz 17: Introduction
“Syn[ning] Bravely”: Introduction to Next Horizons
Washington State University Vancouver
As I was reading the five essays for this special issue selected from the 2016 Electronic Literature Organization’s “Next Horizons” conference, Pat Cadigan’s Synners came to mind. If you are not familiar with this Arthur C. Clarke award-winning novel, I can tell you that it provides a critical look at, among many things, the relationship between humans and machines; the nature of art in artificial environments; and the human desire to transcend physical constraints. Published over 25 years ago, it envisioned the next horizon as a place where artificial reality becomes reality, the net achieves human consciousness, and everything including the human body is hackable.
While the essays in this special issue imagine a less dystopic vison than Cadigan’s book, they do touch on similar themes: virtual and augmented reality, code culture, and art and technology. To quote the character Fez, “We’ve become denizens of the net. Homo datum” (386). Indeed, he would be even more correct today making this pronouncement after reading Issue 17.
Caitlin Fisher kicks off the issue with “Future Fiction Storytelling Machines.” The essay takes readers through a careful exploration of her work as it evolved from “linking structures and the epistemological challenge link-node constellations might pose to academic writing—and the possibilities they might open up” to augmented reality “as both expressive and receptive future fiction storytelling machine that carries inside it some of the foundational dreams of electronic literature.” The collusion between human and computing device for the purpose of achieving a new form of human expression hints to Cadigan’s concept of a synner where one’s technically-enhanced body serves as a medium for the production of a multimedia “dream spot” (109).
The “potato” powered computer that Sam, the teenage hacker-hero of Synners, uses to hack the dataline, comes to mind as the symbol for what Anastasia Salter calls “feminist code poetics” in “Code before Content? Brogrammer Culture in Games and Electronic Literature.” This essay, one of the four presentations that responded to ELO 2016 keynote topic, “Feminist War Gaming,” confronts the oft-promoted idea that everyone needs to learn to code, and that women especially are falling behind with gaining this skill. She asks us instead to “problematiz[e] and interrogat[e] its underlying assumptions, and instead acknowledge that valuing the work of authors outside of the procedural and algorithmic traditions can be as important as a feminist act as pushing for wider code education.”
The next three essays – Stuart Moulthrop’s “Intimate Mechanics: One Model of Electronic Literature,” John Barber’s “Radio Arts: A (Mass) Medium Becomes an (Artistic) Medium,” and Guangxu Zhao’s “On the Digital Resources of Chinese Zati Poetry” – ask us to rethink media art. Moulthrop, harkening back to Espen Aarseth’s theory cybertextual scriptons and textons, focuses specifically on electronic literature and argues that “[e]verything traces in some way back to code (or the code). So even an artwork that replaces the dire rationality of most computer games with zen-like meditation, a work that seems equally far from narrative and ergodic engagement, can still be understood as a curious negotiation between seen and unseen, between experience and underlying logics.” Barber argues that “[r]adio art can be considered one of the earliest forms of media art, an artistic inquiry with a long and potent history of social, cultural, aesthetic, and political activism and creative effort.” Zhao recasts Chinese ideogrammic characters as code and Zati poetry as hypertextual in his very deep reading of two poems from the Tang and Song Dynasties. What links these three essays is the idea, suggested by Moulthrop, that text, broadly defined, implies that it is native to no one medium or platform and may require a variety of approaches but is always “context.” Likewise, “the interplay between context and content,” as Barber tells us, is the space from which new art forms emerges, or as Zhao shows, older non-digital forms may find new interpretations within the computer medium. Here I am especially reminded of the “swirling clusters of slithering paisleys” (3) on Valjean’s wildly animated cape in Synners.
These five essays represent well the output of the 120 speakers involved in the 30 Concurrent Sessions, two Keynotes, Poster Session, eight Artists Talks, Workshops, Lightning Talks, & Action Sessions. If indeed “[e]very technology has its original sin” (435), then ours perhaps is the synthesis of human and computers for telling stories, making art, and understanding those stories and works of art we make. But to quote Flavia, [if you’re] gonna syn, syn bravely” (139).